William F. Buckley: exercise in authenticity
The other night, my daughter and I engaged in a semi-regular ritual: After dinner we tuned in "Entertainment Tonight" and then watched "Jeopardy!"
That evening, we sat through a numbing blur of "ET" stories pegged to commercial enterprises such as new books ("How often can Valerie Bertinelli be on TV?" I wondered out loud, after also having seen her touting her tome on "The View," "The Today Show" and "Larry King Live," in a 24-hour period of time), new nightclub acts (The Osmonds, reunited for a 50th anniversary extravaganza; admirable bit of log-rolling here, as Donny interviewed Valerie for the "ET" piece on her), and new state campaigns ("ET" interviewed presidential hopeful Barack Obama in Ohio, and when asked said he'd rather meet Bruce Springsteen than Miley Cyrus).
And then daughter and I suffered through a defeating and deflating round of "Jeopardy!", in which I managed to miss about every answer I tried to solve in the form of a question. OK, I was sick that day, but still: You know you're in trouble when you're wishing for "Teen Tournament" episodes of "Jeopardy!" to boost your self-esteem.
And then, switching to some news, I heard that William F. Buckley Jr. had died at the age of 82. I'd learn later he'd been sitting at his desk in his study, when he was found.
And then my daughter was smart enough to reach for the ear buds and The Kings of Leon when I started on a riff of cultural and self-flagellation and loathing that could lead to no good -- but did lead to this column, so no such luck for you.
You're not going to get an intellectual rundown about William F. Buckley Jr. from me. Frankly, we drank from different Kool-Aid cups, and I read more of his Blackford Oakes novels than I did his political tracts.
But -- remembering when I would and could tune in to Buckley's "Firing Line" for some lively food for thought (and harpsichord music in the age of chainsaw rock), remembering when even entertainment programs like "The Merv Griffin Show" would squeeze Abbie Hoffman in between Georgie Jessel and Totie Fields appearances, I mourned for the Swiss cheese our pop culture and my pop-culture-fed brain had become, and I mourned a guy I hadn't thought of in a while.
That in itself is kind of amazing, given that Buckley is cited as a founder of the modern conservative movement, which is now a mainstream reality (which some -- OK, I -- would say is in danger of becoming an enveloping reality).
It wasn't always so. Enter Buckley.
He was patrician and iconoclastic and not shy about throwing around 500-pound words, all of which served him in pumping up a post-New Deal brand of conservatism that found Ike too mild and Goldwater just right.
Though honeyed and moneyed, Buckley's subversiveness (he attacked his own institutions, as well as those held dear by others) packed a lasting punch. Wise men and women point to Buckley as the lead usher to the Reagan revolution, like it or not.
Buckley put forth this ideas in books and speeches and newspaper columns (some of which ran on these pages), via his 33-year run on "Firing Line" and in between the covers of National Review, the magazine he founded and, The New York Times reported, financially supported; Buckley literally put his money where his mouth was.
And what a mouth it was.
In the days since his death, someone brilliantly wrote that his smile would appear like a blade, and that's true. What followed its unsheathing could be lethal to the points or arguments on the receiving end.
So what if he sent you running to the dictionary with his elocution -- better than a trip to the refrigerator for a sip or a snack while boning up on the latest Valerie Bertinelli weight-loss or infidelity news. He fed your head in a way that Jefferson Airplane didn't sing about, although he was in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana.
The dessert of the experience was Buckley himself -- amazing again, because there was no eye candy going on in terms of his presentation.
He was almost pathologically un-telegenic, which makes his run as the longest single host of a TV program (he beat Johnny Carson in longevity) all the more remarkable.
In addition to the antediluvian set of "Firing Line," Buckley looked rumpled, his hair barely looked combed, his clothes didn't appear to be any sort of priority, his tongue flicked as if for catching the right word or a buzzing insect, his eyes went from heavy-lidded to bulging (someone wrote about his eyebrow workouts on these pages the other day, so I'll skip that), his delivery was all, ah, ah, ah, pause and effect.
He looked as if he had a big life beyond television, not as if television was his life.
I think part of what I'm mourning here is authenticity.
In an age of "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV," Buckley really was a man of ideas and substance (even if you didn't entirely buy into them or it), and his life was about more than filling air time with harangue and piffle until the next breaking Britney Spears update.
And in an era when infallibility is seen not only as papal but also presidential, Buckley broke party ranks on biggies like the Panama Canal Treaty and the Iraq war.
And at a time of acidic partisanship, Buckley managed across-the-aisle friendships with people who proudly wore the other L word (liberal), his famous and long-ago shout-fest with Gore Vidal notwithstanding.
And at a moment when "pimping out" serves as political point-making, when spittle-flecked zingers are the popular currency of the airwaves and cable universe, when the hair's great but the ideas are lacking, well, that's when William F. Buckley checked out, and that's too bad.
I think we can miss him, and what he stood for, even if we did not agree with him.
Many will believe we are greater for his having lived.
I believe we are less, for his having died.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled shouting